Ice-cool Saurabh Chaudhary outlasts veterans at their own game

'The new generation is very confident' - Bindra (3:46)

2008 Oympic Gold Medallist Abhinav Bindra is all praise for the new generation of shooters in the country. (3:46)

A couple of days before he would make his debut at the Asian Games, Saurabh Chaudhary had a more pressing concern. The 16-year-old was wondering how he would access his Forex Card for the daily allowance he was entitled to. Considering the pistol shooter would be traveling to the World Championships in Korea soon after the Games, Saurabh was worried that his daily allowance would be transferred to someone else.

"He was telling me sir mera card kisi aur ko mat dena. I told him you have a PIN number that only you will be able to access. So he said sir fir mujhe PIN de do aur card kisiko bhi (give me the PIN then, it doesn't matter who has the card)," recalls Ronak Pandit, who is with the Indian shooting team in Palembang.

Saurabh might still be figuring out the grown up world of managing his finances. But amongst the adults in the elite marksmanship, he proved to be a natural. Even their superior. On Tuesday, in what was his first international tournament at the senior level, Saurabh outlasted a high-class field to win India's first gold medal in the shooting competitions in Palembang.

It was a performance that drew acclaim even from his rivals. Silver medalist Tomoyuki Matsuda's eyes widened as he learned his opponent was 26-years younger than him. "I didn't know he's that young? He's really very good," Matsuda said after the final.

It's easy to see why Matsuda was impressed.

Asian Games 2018 | Schedule | Results | Medals tally

Saurabh had provided a nearly nerveless performance. Where the adults around him bent and broke under the strain of a high stakes final, the youngest of the eight men was unfazed by the prospect of making one potential tournament-ending shot after another.

Each shot was as composed as the one before. His left hand was almost casually tucked into his trouser pocket, with the right extending his Morini pistol towards the coin sized target a 33 feet away. With the target rings a fractions of centimeters apart, margins are slim and shooting becomes a sport of pressure. Unlike in the rifle events, there's no heavy coat with which to dampen nervous shudders. The slightest loss of focus can cause a cascading series of tremors onto the hand holding the instrument. Just a stray thought can end a campaign.

"Everyone deals with pressure differently," national coach Pavel Smirnov would say later. "Every one hits a breaker. For some the breaker is high. But for Saurabh it is very low. He gets affected very little by it."

Indeed, if he eventually decides shooting isn't for him, Saurabh might have a career in poker, once he crosses the legal gambling age limit that is.

There wasn't a single moment where he appeared to have been flustered on the range. The closest he came to that was in qualifying during his third series, when he shot a total of 93. After the first few misses, he simply placed his pistol on the table, and walked away to the coaches corner where Indian Junior coach Jaspal Rana helped Saurabh compose himself.

He was assured that he had only suffered a temporary hitch. Saurabh returned to top the qualifying field with a competition personal best total score of 386. A handshake and kindly hand around the back of his neck from Rana offered reassurance that he had figured it out: "Kabhi kabhi zaruri hai ki aise hona chahiye. Firse focus karna sikhata hai (It's sometimes important to suffer setbacks, as it helps you focus better)."

In the final, Saurabh wouldn't even need that supporting crutch. He may as well have been at a practice session rather than competing to win India's first shooting gold of the Games.

It didn't seem to concern him when he realized he would be shooting right next to Korean Jin Jong Oh. The two-time Olympic gold medalist, is - in coach Pandit's words - a god of pistol shooting. It didn't matter when Oh raised a fuss even before the shooting started, claiming a technical malfunction.

His eyes on the prize, Saurabh didn't even nudge his fuzz-lined chin over to see what the commotion was all about. He didn't grimace when he shot four consecutive mediocre scores in the nines and the margin between him and the gold began to stretch intolerably.

He scarcely glanced up to the scoreboard to register the moment when double World Champion Tomoyuki Matsuda began to let him back into the contest. Margins of 2.5 became 2.1, .9 and then .4 with the final series of shots. Matsuda left open a crack with an 8.9 in the penultimate shot of the event. He scowled in dismay as Saurabh barged in through the crack with a 10.2 and confirmed the win with a final score of 10.4. He had the Games record and the gold.

It was only then that he allowed himself the slightest concession of a smile.

Those who have known Saurabh weren't surprised at his win. His compatriots swear by his work ethic.

"He's a very hard working shooter. He doesn't have any distractions. He doesn't even keep phones," says Abhishek Verma, who took bronze behind Saurabh.

Coaches who have worked with Saurabh speak of his relentlessness in the ranges. "He's obsessed about training. He will practice for six to eight hours at times. He will be completely focused while he is doing this," says a physiotherapist who works with him.

That ice-cool demeanour is another crucial factor of his game - keeping him focused on the task at hand when even the legendary Jong Oh and Matsuda lost their nerve. Saurabh simply doesn't do emotional swings. "That's a great quality in a pistol shooter. You can't be impulsive. You can't react to problems. You have to work out solutions to these things," says Pandit.

For Saurabh, all these truths seem to be self evident. "I don't recall a time when I've lost my temper or got angry at any time on the range. How does that help me? Once the bullet is fired from the barrel, nothing I do can put it back inside. I can only prepare for the next chance I get," he says.

While he might not think too much about them, it's these qualities that make Saurabh such a formidable opponent. He had already accomplished much even before the Asian Games this year, having won the Junior World Cup in Suhl with a junior World record and qualified for the Youth Olympics.

That he was in red-hot form was also not in doubt. While his selection to the Asiad might have raised eyebrows, coming as it did at the expense of World No. 1 Shahzar Rizvi, his qualifying scores of 587 and 589 during the selection trials, and his subsequent performance in Jakarta only justified that decision.

At the Asian Games, he had another ace in his sleeve - his age. While experience counts for something, the advantages of being unburdened by reputations made the difference. For more than a few Indians of Saurabh's age, that has proved to be a boon this season, as shown by fellow 16-year-olds Manu Bhakar and Anish Bhanwala, who won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games earlier this year.

Much like at Gold Coast for his two compatriots, there was next to no pressure on Saurabh in Palembang. It wasn't as if he had no clue who his rivals were. "I knew they were World cup and Olympic champions but you don't think too much about it. If I though about that, I wouldn't have shot well," he says.

There's an argument to be made that Saurabh's biggest tests lie ahead.

"There is an innocence about these young shooters. It won't always last," says junior shooting coach Deepali Deshpande. "But until it does it's a great thing. They simply don't know any better. There's no expectation on them to do anything. Manu (Bhakker) and Anish (Bhanwala) had it the first time they competed at the Commonwealth Games. But once they win, the same competitions starts getting difficult because they are expected to perform like this always."

Perhaps true to his nature, Saurabh isn't letting his win get to him. "I don't think so. Maybe something might be done at my home," he says when asked if he would be celebrating his win.

For Saurabh, the next shot is always due. And if his opponent Matsuda's praise was any indication, it might come in even bigger stages.

"He had a great day today. He is clearly very talented. Perhaps's I'll see him at the Olympics," Matsuda said.